“Make the room. I need you, Alfie.”
Father said to trust only myself, and I do. I trust myself enough to know that I need men around me I can depend on.
“You once told Father the whole world is an advertisement and we’re all customers. Do you remember?”
That looks comes over his face, the same one he always gets when we talk about my father—warm and affectionate and still a little sad.
“I need your business sense and marketing skill, Alfie. Father used to say if you have the people on your side, you have everything. I need you to make sure my message, my vision for the country, makes its way to the people.”
Alfie folds his hands across his belly, tapping his thumbs.
“You think Parliament will work against your vision?”
“I don’t know what Parliament will do. I must be prepared for anything.”
“Only nobility can serve on the Advising Council,” he points out.
Alfie had the ear, the confidence and the friendship of a king. But he wasn’t an aristocrat. Until now.
I hand him a large, sealed envelope—with a thick, folded sheet of paper inside that’s inscribed with black elegant writing, my signature, and stamped with the golden seal of the Crown.
“You are now the esteemed Earl of Ellington. Congratulations.”
Alfie takes the envelope like it may bite him.
“Can you do that without Parliament’s approval?”
I shrug. “The land is mine, the titles are mine—I can hand them out any damn way I please. If you’d like an official ceremony, I can organize one for you.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
I watch his face and can practically see the wheels turning in his big, brilliant red head. Being a wealthy international businessman is all fine and good, but being a titled aristocrat is a whole other level of success.
So, I make my other request.
“I also need Cora to come work for me, as my private secretary.”
Alfie’s eyebrows lift high and mighty. “You’re commandeering my schedule and my only daughter?”
When Alfie’s children finished their schooling in Scotland, all three came to live in Wessco and work with him in the family business.
“You only have yourself to blame,” I tell him. “You’re always going on about her organizational skills, her energy and initiative. I could use some of that at the palace.”
Traditionally, the king’s private secretary has been a man’s position, but I think it’s time a lady filled the role. And Cora Barrister, with her father’s business sense and jovial personality, is just the woman for the job.
When Alfie continues to hesitate, I tease him.
“Don’t make such a fuss, old man. You still have Albert and Louis—they’ll continue the expansion of your great retail empire.”
“When did you start calling me Old Man?” He frowns.
“When you were still calling me Chicken after I was old enough to begin wearing a bra.”
That gets a chuckle out of him.
“So what do you say? Are you with me?”
And he smiles—the same warm, reassuring smile he’s given me my whole life.
“Of course I’m with you. Did you have any doubt?”
No, but it’s still nice to hear him say it.
I stand. “Welcome to the peerage, Alfie. Brace yourself—it’s not as much fun as it looks.”
His forehead crinkles. “It doesn’t look fun at’all.”
My next destination is a good four hours’ drive away—not quite the middle of nowhere, but far from anywhere that’s considered somewhere. In the car, I review the latest tax report. Since the war ended, revenue has been in steady decline and Parliament wants to hike up taxes. But the issue isn’t that taxes are too low; it’s that jobs are too scarce.
And you can’t get blood from a stone, no matter how many times you bash it with a meaner, heavier rock.
I set the report aside as we pass through the wrought-iron gates and head up the winding drive. The rain has stopped, a thick foggy mist rises from the ground and a fragile glimmer of sun peeks out from the clouds as the massive gray structure comes into view.
It’s the stuff of fairy tales. All smooth, shiny stone, arched windows, floating footbridges and soaring turrets—with the angry green sea crashing against the rocks below the cliff on one side, and miles of wild forest on the other. I was raised amongst castles; they are as common to me as bed linens . . . but this one still manages to take my breath away.
Two flags fly from the highest tower—the Wessco standard and just slightly lower, the banner of the Rourke family, proclaiming that the master of the house, the dear Duke of Anthorp, is in residence.
I find Thomas in the morning room with his feet up on a leather ottoman, his hands tucked behind his head, his white shirt open and his chest on display in all its pale gleaming glory.
And he’s not alone.
“Good afternoon, Your Majesty.”
Michael Fitzgibbons bows his dark auburn head as he greets me. Michael’s the third son of a viscount and an artist, a painter. He’s a beautiful young man—how the statue of David would look if it came to life and walked out of the museum. He’s Thomas’s special friend. They spend time together as often as they can when Thomas is away from his parliamentary duties.
Michael sits down in his chair and refocuses on the chessboard on the table between them.
“We were just about to have lunch, Lenora,” Thomas says in a raspy voice. His glasses are off and his eyes are closed, his head tilted back. “Would you like to join us?”
“That would be lovely.”
And then my nose begins to burn with an odor—as if something had crawled from the sulfur pits of hell and died under Thomas’s chair.
“Holy God, what is that stench?”
“Eucalyptus ointment,” Thomas says. “For this bloody chest cold that won’t go away. You get used to it after a bit.”
Michael slides his rook across the board. “Yes, after the nerve endings in your nostrils shrivel and die.”
Thomas makes the “tossing off” motion with his fist. A gesture I didn’t even know existed until he taught it to me when I was seventeen. That and “the finger.”
Thomas opens his arms and wiggles his fingers toward me. “Come, let me hug you. Then we can all be offensive together.”
“No thank you. You’re offensive enough for all of us.”
Michael raises his glass of wine. “Here, here.”
Despite the smell, I shift Thomas’s feet and sit on the ottoman, taking over his chess game with Michael, moving his bishop into a more aggressive position against the king.
“I have a proposition for you, Thomas.”
That gets his eyes open. “Is it a naughty proposition? You know those are my favorite.”
“Depends on your definition of naughty. What do you think of taking a place on the Advising Council?”
He’ll have to give up his family’s seat in Parliament—those are the rules—and we are nothing if not sticklers for rules. But the Council is a loftier position, more coveted, and more powerful. If Thomas wants to leave his mark on Wessco, the Advising Council’s the place to do it.
“I think the sods on the Council will say it’s borderline degenerate,” Thomas replies.